29 x 29: 5-12

While this blog languishes, the 29 x 29 Project flourishes. I made great strides in reading in May and June. This is more like the pace I was hoping to adopt as a regular thing in setting up this challenge for myself.

Also? I’m done with those pre-formatted reviews. Over it. They seemed smart to me at first, to have a template to work with so I didn’t have to think too much. But after the first few, I kind of dreaded sitting down to write one (hence some of the cricket chirps around here). So here’s just a few thoughts on the books I’ve read in the last few months. No spoilers, I promise.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith

I felt like the narrative plodded along pretty slowly at first. Smith builds a pretty strong foundation out of Francie’s (the protagonist) childhood, pouring great detail into her neighborhood and the penny-pinching that defined her days. It works to set you firmly within the setting, and the constant notation of the cost is tedious but does help recreate within you the mindset of the characters you’re reading about. Ultimately, Francie was endearing enough to  win me over with her infectious hope and ambition. If I had read this 6 or so years ago, I probably would have related better and loved it more. 

Swamplandia – Karen Russell

There were  a lot of good things about this one: great imagery; charming characters; a well-balanced tone that’s light enough to sweep you along but holds enough weight to keep you steady. Swamplandia falls in the category of magical realism, and Russell plays that well with myths and ghost stories that feel right at home in the swamp. I wanted to love it, and many times I did, but the pacing dragged around midway and I found myself slogging through it. Still, worth the read.

1Q84 – Haruki Murakami

I was nervous upon starting this because it’s pretty massive and, even though I felt like I read huge chunks at a time, I seldom felt like I was making progress. But I really liked it. Most of the criticisms are true–it’s often repetitive, sometimes the writing (especially dialogue and inner monologues) is weak and/or cheesy, and it feels a bit stretched out. But it’s compelling and easy enough to settle into the world–to get caught up in the little mysteries and work with the characters to put the pieces together. I’ll definitely be reading more Murakami in the future.

Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse

I don’t know why I hadn’t read this sooner. It’s a good, easy read with just enough weight to give you something to mull over. It didn’t really present me with new ideas, but reinforced and refined my thoughts on unity and balance and purpose.  I think this one and my response to it is best summed up by a quote:
“Slowly this blossomed in him, was shining back at him from Vasudeva’s old, childlike face: harmony, knowledge of the eternal perfection of the world, smiling, oneness.”

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

I’d read this before several years ago. I remembered the gist of it, but with the movie coming out and everyone making a big fuss over the book again, I thought I’d give it another go. I’d originally not understood why everyone was so enamored with it, and I still don’t really. I mean, it’s good, duh. But I still think most people are drawn to it because the setting is glitzy and the characters are wasted half the time. It’s a fantasy world most people wish they could escape to–adults who seem to do whatever they want in their easy lives. Of course, it ends in stark realism, and that’s kind of the point. The literary snob in me wants to say that most people like it because they miss the point, but that seems pretty harsh, no?

No One is Here Except All of Us – Ramona Ausubel

I love this book. It’s probably the best thing I’ve read in a long while. The narrative finds a sweet spot between fantasy and reality; the prose is gorgeous without being heavy-handed. Each line is carefully crafted. Writing like this is extremely difficult–so easy to lose your reader among the flowers and flourishes of poetic prose, but Ausubel is  truly masterful in her balance. It approaches a topic that has been covered countless times in a surprisingly unique narrative, one that is the best mix of comedy, romance, tragedy, and heroism.

Wild – Cheryl Strayed

To be fair, there’s probably no way this one could have met my expectations for it. I’d read an essay by Cheryl Strayed several years ago; it was one of those reading experiences that stays with you long after you’ve moved on to the next piece. Her words were raw and honest. As a reader I was in awe; as I writer I wondered if I’d ever be able to put myself out there so completely as she had. I realize now that a book-length work simply can’t sustain powerful writing like that–you’d be exhausted by the weighty drama of every page. So, if I’m being realistic, Wild was good and inspiring and heartfelt. It just wasn’t the masterpiece I was hoping for.

Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

This was probably my quickest read. I soared through it in about five days. Which speaks to its readability but not really to its quality. Which it had is spades until about halfway through. It’s not that it turned dull at that point, I just felt like the writing dropped in quality. Or maybe I didn’t like the way the plot worked out. Characters that were initially interesting turned a little flat. And the ending was mildly infuriating, though I guess that’s part of the fun of this type of book.


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